Are Christ's Human Limitations Permanent?

Human Nature and Divine Nature

Scripture and church tradition teach that the incarnation is not a temporary act but a permanent one. In addition, Scripture distinguishes between the states of humiliation and exaltation. Even in the state of humiliation, “whatever the lowliness into which Christ stooped by his incarnation it was not such as to prevent his disciples seeing his glory (Jn. 1:14). If it had been—if the earthly life had disclosed nothing but ‘human likeness’ (Phil. 2:7)—Christ would never have been worshipped and Christianity would never have been born.”1

It is best to think of Christ’s humiliation as krypsis, i.e., hiddenness or veiledness. In taking on a human nature, the Son not only accommodated himself to human weakness, he also veiled his glory, which is seen only by divine revelation.

As Jesus lived a fully human life, he had the ability to exercise his divine power and authority, but he chose to obey his Father’s will for us and for our salvation. As the Son, he continued to live and act in Trinitarian relation to his Father and the Spirit as he had always done from eternity, but now as the incarnate Son he is able to live a fully human life in order to redeem us.

During his life, acting as the last Adam, in filial obedience to his Father, sometimes Jesus denied himself the exercise of his divine might and energies for the sake of the mission. At other times, as the Father allowed and in relation to the Spirit, he exercised those energies, and in the case of his cosmic functions, he continually exercised his divine power in Trinitarian relation. Never once, though, did our Lord act in his own interest, because he always acted in light of who he is as the eternal Son.

Even as he faced the cross, he willingly and gladly bore our sin and deployed no resources beyond those which his Father allowed and in relation to the Spirit. After his resurrection and ascension, the incarnate Son returned to his previous glory with the veil now removed, and presently the Lord Jesus rules at the right hand of the Father, interceding for his people, and from this posture of rule, he will come again in glory to consummate what he inaugurated in his first advent.

Even as [Jesus] faced the cross, he willingly and gladly bore our sin and deployed no resources beyond those which his Father allowed and in relation to the Spirit.

In his glorified state, at which we get a glimpse in his transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–13 par.), and more completely post–resurrection and ascension (John 20–21; Acts 1; 9:1–9; Rev. 1:9–20; 5:1–14; 19:11–18), our Lord remains fully God and fully man, but the veil is now pulled back. In his glorified state, Jesus, as God the Son incarnate, continues to act through both natures as he relates to his people as the head and mediator of the new covenant, but it seems that the exercise of his deity is much more prevalent than during the state of humiliation.

An Important Question

But a question must be asked: What about Christ’s post resurrection state? Are the limitations of his incarnation now permanent? Given that the Son is now and forevermore the incarnate Son, can he now express only those divine attributes consistent with his humanity? Is his inability to express divine attributes inconsistent with his humanity tied only to the state of humiliation (even though, as Scripture teaches, even on earth the divine Son continues to uphold the universe)? Furthermore, in glorification, is the veil pulled back and the full glory of the Son displayed, or is this inability to express his divine attributes bound up with the very nature of the Son’s taking on a human nature so that now the Son cannot permanently express the full range of his divine attributes?2

An affirmation of the permanent limitations of the incarnate Son seems consistent with the kenotic viewpoint (derived from Philippians 2:7, the theological concept that, through His incarnation, Christ humbled or emptied Himself and became a servant for man's sake), even though some advocates try to avoid this conclusion. It is consistent because of how the kenotic view defines “person.” From their equation of person with soul and their placing of will and mind in person, it seems to follow that unless Christ’s humanity is shed in his glorification, there are now permanent limitations on the Son in his expression and use of his divine attributes.

Unlike the classical view, kenotic views do not affirm two wills and two minds in Christ, thus making it difficult to conceive how, in glorification, the Son can return to a full exercise of his divine attributes. Think for example of the Son’s omniscience tied to his divine mind.

If the adding of a human nature requires the necessary contraction of knowledge, or the divine consciousness becoming subliminal, then how does the Son return to a full, conscious, omniscient knowledge, given that he has only one mind and that it was the addition of his human body that brought about this contraction? In exaltation, if the glorified Christ returns to his previous state and can exercise all of his divine attributes, then how is he still truly human? On the other hand, if the glorified Christ can exercise all of his divine attributes and retain his humanity, then why cannot he do it in the state of humiliation as well, which, if admitted, seems to undercut the rationale for the kenotic view?

It seems that a consistent kenoticism requires that either the Son must remove his humanity in order to return to the full exercise of his divine attributes, or there are permanent limitations entailed by the incarnation. If those alternatives are not acceptable, then the other alternative would be to return to a classical Christology with its corresponding metaphysical commitments.

Three Kenotic Responses

How do kenoticists respond? There are three responses.

First, a few deny the perpetual humanity of Christ, which is impossible to reconcile with Scripture and the historical confessions, and which ultimately robs us of our new covenant mediator now and forevermore.3

God the Son Incarnate

Stephen J. Wellum

Laying out a systematic summary of Christology from philosophical, biblical, and historical perspectives, this book leads to the ultimate conclusion that Christ is God the Son incarnate.

Second, more kenoticists affirm that Christ’s limitations are permanent. Evans, representing OKC [Ontological Kenotic Christology], proposes that the glorified Christ remains fully human yet continues not “to possess all of the traditional divine properties.”4 This entails that the Son’s preincarnate possessing and exercise of the divine attributes has changed beginning at the incarnation, and that the change is now permanent.

What this implies for the triune personal relations, Evans suggests, is that “[t]he resumption of the traditional divine properties can be understood as accomplished by the power of the Father and the Spirit, who bestow glorification on the Son, who merits it by virtue of his sacrificial life and death.”5 Concerned that this results in asymmetrical relations and inequality among the divine persons, Evans admits that everyone affirms some kind of “asymmetries in the relations enjoyed by the persons of the Trinity,”6 but it is difficult to see how Evans can affirm that the Son is homoousios with the Father and Spirit, because the Son does not possess the divine attributes in the same way.

Historically, pro-Nicene orthodoxy has spoken of the ordering (taxis) among the divine persons according to their eternal, immanent relations, but it has also consistently affirmed that all three persons equally possess the same identical concrete divine nature. On the other hand, Evans and those like him, in affirming permanent limitations of the incarnate Son, ultimately must reconfigure Trinitarian theology in unorthodox ways.7 Within a FKC [Functional Kenotic Christology] view, those who embrace permanent limitations will affirm that the incarnate Son continues to possess the divine nature equally, yet the Son-Spirit relation has now permanently changed from what it was prior to the incarnation, which now results in a different taxis from what it was in eternity past.

Third, probably the best response that fits with the Scriptural presentation of the glorified Christ is that the incarnate Son’s limitations are temporary for the state of humiliation and not in the state of exaltation, even though Christ is permanently the incarnate Son.

This article is an excerpt from God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ by Stephen J. Wellum.

1. Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 212.
2. Bruce Ware is difficult to understand on this question. Although he affirms the extra, he seems to imply that the incarnation has brought about permanent limitations, not merely for the state of humiliation but forevermore. See Ware, Man Christ Jesus, 21–23, 43–45. He states, “[W]hen Jesus took on our human nature and accepted his dependence on the Spirit, it seems that he accepted this as his way of life forever, from that moment forward without end. . . . when he became also human, he became forever dependent on the Spirit” (44–45).
3. See David Brown, The Divine Trinity (London: Duckworth, 1985), 234, 257, who defends this option. Feenstra, “Reconsidering Kenotic Christology,” in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, 147, strongly rejects this option.
4. See Evans, “Kenotic Christology and the Nature of God,” in Exploring Kenotic Christology, 200; cf. idem, “Self-Emptying of Love,” 265–266.
5. Evans, “Kenotic Christology and the Nature of God,” 200.
6. Evans, “Self-Emptying of Love,” 267.
7. In order to avoid permanent limitations on Christ, Evans suggests the possibility that Christ’s glorified body may be compatible with “reacquiring and possessing the traditional divine attributes,” and as such, in his glorified body he reassumes all the traditional theistic attributes (Evans, “Self-Emptying of Love,” 265). The problem with such a view is that Christ’s glorified human nature no longer looks human. What evidence is there that human nature, even in a glorified state, is able to be deified in the way that Evans proposes? Scripture gives no indication of this, and the church has carefully kept Christ’s divine and human natures distinct, thus preserving the Creator-creature distinction even in the incarnation.

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